3 Tips for Unleashing Your Business’s Secret Weapon: Great Problem Solvers
Great businesses are set apart by their ability to solve the hardest problems that they inevitably face. Organizations that can identify and solve hard problems in operations, sales, HR, and other areas have a comparative advantage that allows them to break away from the pack, while those who can’t may stagnate and slowly degrade.
But finding and unleashing great problem solvers in your business is a tough task for talent management. Great problem solvers aren’t clearly distinguished by a certain education, expertise, or even level of intelligence: you’ll find they score differently in each of these areas. What distinguishes them are the behaviors they bring to the table, though they can be hard to spot.
Often, problem-solving behaviors are actually suppressed by corporate culture: challenging the conventional approach in any organization can be a lonely business, and worse, create backlash, so even natural problem solvers have been conditioned not to come forward. To find them, start with your instinct. You probably have a sense of who in the business is highly motivated to improve the organization. Now take another look: some of them most likely have the potential to be great problem solvers. To find them and awaken them, you need to give them opportunities to solve problems, encourage them to excel by tapping into their innate talents, and recognize and reward the right behaviors.
To see how it works, we’ll follow the story of Johann and Maria, operators whose problem solving prowess was awakened when they worked with Thorsten at a business in Germany. The business manufactured paint, and was attempting to improve the output at its main facility in order to take on new volume without having to open a second facility. Many problems needed to get solved to do this, and Johann and Maria were helping increase the speed of a critical piece of production equipment.
Give Them Opportunities
When you give motivated people the opportunity and expectation to go solve a problem, they may start to unleash their problem solving behaviors right away. This machine didn’t break down much: to make more, it would need to be sped up. Unfortunately, it was already running faster than its rated speed.
Johann was on this problem-solving team because he was one of the asset operators, and because he had shown a natural desire to make things better. In this situation, most people would say that nothing could be done, and the team would have been dead on arrival. But Johann had a latent behavior: he wanted to really understand the problem.
He said, “Let’s call the engineer and see what happens when we speed it up.” In doing this, Johann rescued the team from a mindset of defeat before it could set in, and launched the team into the process of observing the problem, rather than just imagining solutions. Putting people with potential in positions to make an impact can unleash some of their potential on its own.
Encourage Them to Excel
The engineer was happy to show the team why the asset couldn’t go any faster. He edited the machine’s programming and sped it up: indeed, the paint cans came out with crooked labels, and these couldn’t be sent to the customer. The team looked defeated.
But this is where encouragement can make all the difference. Thorsten, who had been solving hard problems like these for more than a decade, asked the team if there was something else they could do to learn more about the machine, rather than settle with simply what they already knew.
That’s when Maria responded: “Let’s call the manufacturer!”
On the phone, the manufacturer’s rep insisted that the machine couldn’t run any faster than its rated speed, and that the plant must be wrong about the number they were reporting. The manufacturer wasn’t directly helpful, though with their self-confidence in hand, the call became a boost for the team.
Maria laughed: “We know more about the machine than the vendor does!” She was demonstrating that hse wasn’t going to rely on experts to tell her what was true. She just needed another push from Thorsten:
“We’ve broken that constraint. What else is possible?”
With their gears turning, the team decided to take a slow-motion video of the asset in motion to really understand what was going on.
Recognize and Reward Great Problem Solving Behaviors
The behaviors Johann and Maria demonstrated are the kinds of behaviors that are often beaten down since they challenge the status quo. Bringing in an engineer to speed a machine past its accepted limit could be reprimanded as irresponsible. And shaking off the perceived limitations of a vendor could be dubbed foolish. But Johann and Maria were right
Thorsten was able to not only encourage Johann and Maria, but also demonstrated to the plant’s leadership how their behaviors made all the difference. During team reports, the leadership team made sure to openly recognize their problem-solving approach for what it meant: big steps forward. Such recognition reinforces great problem solving behaviors and helps a problem solver gain confidence and support.
With this growing confidence, the team closely investigated the slow-motion video, and found that there was an opportunity to eliminate an unnecessary pause in the asset’s processing cycle by moving a detector. When the team went to the detector, they found it was in a sliding slot, but it was already as far back in the slot it could go. Some team members looked on with frustration.
This is where Johann really showed how much he had grown as a problem solver. “Let’s just cut the slot deeper,” he said. His confidence in his abilities and the support he would get meant that he had the mindset to find a simple solution to the problem. That mindset allowed him to quickly see it. The slot was cut, and the machine was quickly made 10 % faster.
Problem Solvers Unleashed
Neither Johann nor Maria hold engineering degrees. Neither was trained in any problem solving methodology. What they had was a dormant set of great behaviors waiting to be unleashed. With recognition and encouragement, these behaviors became a permanent fixture of their day to day work. Their performance inspired others on the team and in the plant to look at many other problems differently.
Both were tasked to further problem solving teams in the plant, and continued to grow in skill and confidence. Its problem solving culture changed for the better, and it was able to solve many more problems that brought in new volume, a win for all.
What are the strengths of different problem solvers in your team? Find out here.
By Guest Contributors:
Nat Greene is co-founder and current CEO of Stroud International and the author of “Stop Guessing: The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem Solvers.” Nat has a Masters of Engineering from Oxford University and studied design, manufacturing and management at Cambridge University, in addition to executive education coursework in Harvard Business School’s Owner/President Management program.
Thorsten Hofmann is a co-founder of Stroud International and leads the European practice, serving clients worldwide. He graduated from FH Coburg in Germany, and Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom with Mechanical Engineering and Management degrees.